Our serpent-like spines are meant to move in several different directions: extension and flexion, lateral flexion and rotation. Essentially all core training involves actively moving your spine in one of these directions, or actively resisting the desire for your spine to move in one of these directions. From my own experience, and in working with lots of other people over many years, it seems rotation can be the most challenging for us to understand and perform with confidence. But I’ve found once we start to think of spinal rotation (or anti-rotation) as core training, and actually use strength to help us with this work, it becomes easier to feel and more fun to practice.
The muscles that rotate the spine are the multifidi, rotatores, external obliques and internal obliques. The multifidi and rotatores are short diagonal muscles that are deep under the erector spinae muscles. They link the vertebrae together by extending at various lengths from the spinous and transverse processes of the vertebrae. You’ll probably feel more muscle activation in the larger rotational muscles of the obliques.
The external obliques originate on the lower eight ribs and connect to the front of the iliac crest and the abdominal aponeurosis to the linea alba (tendon-like fascia). The internal obliques originate on the iliac crest, the lateral inguinal ligament and the thoracolumbar fascia, and attach to the internal surface of the lower three ribs and the abdominal aponeurosis to the linea alba. The external obliques rotate your spine to the opposite side. The internal obliques rotate your spine to the same side. A quick google search for images of these muscles might be helpful if you are a visual person like me.
Now try to experience where these muscles live in your body. Stand tall, inhale and generate some tension in your core, exhale and rotate your torso to the right. Pause and see what you feel. Hopefully you’ll notice activation in the abdominal muscles from the waist line and up into the rib cage on your left side, and muscles in the waist line and lower, wrapping into your low back on the right. Now try the opposite direction. Congratulations - you just used core muscles to rotate! Of course these same muscles will activate when we are resisting rotation - like in an anti-rotational press, a diagonal band chop or a one arm/one leg plank.
This muscle activation is relatively easy to feel when we are thinking about doing direct core work, but what about when we are performing rotational moves in stretches, yoga poses or warm ups? I’ve got really great news for you - it’s the same! Sometimes I see people blazing through a warm up without thinking about what muscles or joints are involved. One of the most common things I see in rotational mobility drills is mistaking the shoulder as the targeted joint, and cranking on the shoulder to try to access more range of motion.
This is an easy mistake to make because thoracic spine mobility and shoulder mobility are certainly intertwined. But next time you practice a classic mobility drill like a Rib Pull or a Runner’s Lunger with T-Reach (aka the World’s Greatest Stretch) see if you can activate those obliques and notice if your shoulders don’t feel better too! This is a win/win for those of you who want more mobility and more core strength!
Strength & Love,